Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and consider myself a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.

Karate Adult

June 26, 2011

Some time ago, I wrote about Loretta’s adaptive sports expo. I saw a karate demonstration which really inspired me. Because of the interest shown by all involved, the YMCA agreed to offer an eight week self defense course for the disabled. This I have completed today, and I feel glad to report that they have now agreed to turn it into a full form belt ranking course.

I took karate as a kid. And yes, watching Karate Kid around three hundred times probably had something to do with it. All boys who grew up in the mid eighties watched that movie a similar number of times, and karate had become very popular, as had an interest in Japanese culture. I got a yellow belt, but sadly my awesome teacher had a motorcycle accident and I stopped. I’ve wanted to take martial arts for years, and I’ve finally found a new teacher.

I paid $60 for this eight-week self defense course. What a bargain! As the course progressed I started hoping that I could earn some sort of belt, or something. Really, I wanted it to become a real karate course so I could start taking it again. Fortunately, others had similar thoughts, and it now has become a reality. It will cost $60 per month. What a bargain! As I wrote in my article about skiing for the first time, you just can’t lose with these people.

As we progressed through the weeks, we covered different kinds of attacks. They usually began with a grab from the front, a grab from behind, or a grab on the wrist. We also covered using blocks to defend against punches. I began to start to piece things together.

We very quickly began using our adaptive technologies as weapons. As I noted in the referenced article above, Ken works with each individual based on their disability. This requires a very real knowledge of someone’s limits. Some people just can’t do certain things with a disability, so need to compensate. All of the other students have mobility issues. Some use wheelchairs and others canes. I represent the only blind person, and I carry a cane. Fortunately, a girl named Kelly uses a walking cane, so we can learn cane combat together. It also means that we will have to do twice the work, since training requires situations with and without the cane.

The weeks moved on. I really began to view my cane in a different light. In addition to seeming like a device used to find objects while walking, I now began to see it as a weapon and protector. This increases the overall sense of unity with the cane while walking. The increased confidence also help with mobility, giving a heightened awareness of the surroundings. Kenpo skills transfer to all areas of life.

And this brings me to an interesting distinction. For a while, I thought we learned Kempo karate. I know a guy who has studied that system extensively, so have heard the name before. Today, a lady asked if they spell it with an M or an N. Chris corrected the issue: they teach Kenpo karate. Kenpo came from China, then a parting of ways occurred and that began Kempo, which comes from Japan. I felt glad to know that, and it all happened because of a question I would have probably never thought to ask. I feel glad to learn the original system.

We had our last class today. I had to get into the vibe, since we went tubing yesterday. Quite different! Ken showed me a technique to walk a straight line while using my cane and fist. That got me into it, then the questions began and I wanted to do more. I had a feeling I should just keep my mouth shut and wait, and they did not disappoint.

After the questions, Ken promptly announced that he wanted to see what we had learned. He told Chris to attack anyone as he wished. He went through all of us randomly. First, he attacked me from the front. I tried to remember a specific sequence and couldn’t, so started to panic. Then I just figured I’d just go with it and see what worked. Honestly I don’t even know what I did and couldn’t repeat it, but I wrestled him away. Ken instructed me to bring my knee up to meet his head so I did, completing the move. Next, he attacked me from behind. I froze for a little, but tried to remember a step they taught and think I actually pulled it off, disengaging myself and moving behind him where I think I used my cane in some way but can’t even remember. I must have done something right, because Ken laughed and everyone applauded. I just felt so stunned that I actually did this cool move. Kelly told me that Chris removed his glasses after that. Finally, he grabbed my wrist. I clearly remembered stepping and bringing my wrist down to my hip, forcing him down where I think I disengaged myself somehow and definitely remember giving him a good strike to the head with my cane. Ken laughed again and more applause. Chris reminded me to breathe, which I really should know from meditation. I suspect I will begin integrating my meditation skills more as the moves become more familiar and I need to consciously think less. Oh yes, this rules!

At the end, Chris gave us all t-shirts for his studio, Empty Hands Martial Arts 215-884-0699. On the back, it says “Cheltenham’s Greatest Hits” a play on words, hits in this case referring to physical hits. He said a guy asked him what radio station he works for. He hadn’t thought about it that way before. So even though I didn’t get a belt, I did get a cool t-shirt. The belt will follow.

Random Creation

May 30, 2011

Sun Ra fans celebrated his arrival on this planet as they do every year on May 22nd. I always have some revelation about equations, mathematics, and things of this nature. This year proved no exception. For some reason, I started thinking about random number generators. This introduction to randomness gives a good overview.

Two types of random number generators exist. Most of the time, when your computer has to pick a random number, it uses a pseudo-random number generator. This does not actually generate a random number as its name suggests, rather it uses a mathematical formula which produces numbers with a random distribution. They appear random to a human. They do have the advantage of speed. A computer can generate as many “random” numbers as it needs this way. Computers use a lot of random numbers.

The most common formula uses a starting value called the seed, then does some computations involving prime numbers to arrive at a number which appears random. Seeding the generator with the same value produces identical results. I remember writing games in BASIC when I got my first PC in 1987 or so, and not understanding why the random choices always came out the same. Then I learned that I had to seed the generator. The seed usually comes from the time of day, since it provides a constantly changing value. Once seeded, the sequence unfolds according to the formula.

True random number generators, on the other hand, analyze an external source such as a decaying radioactive particle or atmospheric noise to produce truly random numbers. The numbers do not follow any pattern, making them unpredictable. They take longer to generate and the machines may need special environments to isolate them from surrounding noise, making them unsuitable for most everyday uses. Fortunately, services like random.org provide random numbers in various ways, including some cool games and a nifty API.

I thought about these two methods of generating random numbers, and realized that they relate to the two main views of creation. A pseudo-random number generator represents the deterministic view. The creator seeds its creation, setting up its initial conditions. The initial conditions set up the parameters and everything just rolls out according to a plan with no possibility of alteration. Free will does not exist, and you have no choice but to submit to this higher plan like a cog in a universal machine.

A true random number generator represents the non-deterministic view. Chaos generates each moment. Each moment presents an infinite number of possibilities, and free will determines the course of action. You have to make your own destiny in a land where nothing seems determined.

Interestingly, humans have a true random number generator. A human can pick a truly random number, or word, or idea. A computer using a pseudo-random number generator cannot do this. Donuts. Spaceships. 108,236,9,87126,5924839910029387. See?

Some even believe that the human mind can influence both types of random number generators. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research group has conducted many experience with true random number generators. Skeptics doubt, of course, but that should hardly seem surprising. As for pseudo-random number generators, many people have put a bunch of songs into a playlist, then started playing it random, and remarked on how it seems to go through moods, or match the mood of the person or group. Though anecdotal, it certainly suggests something deeper may exist. In a way, that would seem even more amazing if true, since it would demonstrate influencing a pre-determined event. If our subconscious could influence a random number generator, the generator would become no longer random. The same goes for a creator.

So what do you believe? If a random number generator represents the creator, then to extend the analogy, random numbers represent creation. Both generators produce results which appear the same. Perhaps we live in a universe seeded by an initial condition like the big bang or a god or goddess. Perhaps true really means true, and we have to just wake up and stop pulling the wool over our own eyes. Perhaps the truest view incorporates both, representing the middle way, the path of balance. Perhaps a creator or some aspect of ourselves influences these generators, making them no longer random, and making all of this meaningless. Perhaps you should pick one of these five beliefs at random just to see what happens.

To bring it back to Sun Ra, he said that “Music is a language, you see, a universal language.” When we covered fractals in high school math, I wrote a program which mapped data points to MIDI notes. The result sounded like jazz. This page from random.org which picks random jazz guitar scales made me think of this. Sun Ra would approve.

Can you handle a random belief? Try this silly program I wrote to find out what Goddess might have in store for you. I promise you will have a very illuminating experience if you follow the instructions. I love mixing technology and spirituality.

The Productive Macs Bundle with VoiceOver

May 20, 2011

Recently, LifeHacker featured the Productive Macs Bundle. This bundle promises eight great apps for a low price. I figured I’d test all eight for VoiceOver compatibility. If even a few worked it would make it worth the price. At the end, I found a split right down the middle. Four worked and four didn’t. I still consider it a worthwhile investment.

I will cover them in order. I remain open to corrections. I also hope the developers with incompatible programs will consider improving their accessibility. Here we go!

Textexpander:A lot of people love this program. As the name suggests, it expands short text strings into long ones. This helps save time when filling out forms, for example. Have your email and postal addresses as strings. It also has some substitutions for the time and date, and allows for filling in forms. I found this program completely accessible. Very nice.

Pathfinder: This finder replacement offers some cool sounding features. The unix utilities sounded good. It also has Command-X support to “cut” files. Why Finder doesn’t have this continues to elude me. Unfortunately, I had some real problems with this app. First, I tried it in list view mode. It wouldn’t read filenames, just blank. I switched it to column view which I often prefer, and could hear the filenames. Awesome I thought. Then I tried using it to delete a file from my Downloads folder. When I say delete here, I mean move it to the trash. I used Command-Delete as in Finder. Imagine my shock when my entire Downloads folder disappeared. Poof! Instead of removing the one file, it removed the whole folder. I freaked out, but fortunately Command-Z worked to undo the action. I tempted fate and tried a few variations, but to no avail. Too bad! I hope they fix this program. Given the company’s name of Cocoatech I hope they will.

Socialite: I so wanted this program to work. I really really really did. Facebook has become unusable, and I’d love having my Twitter and Facebook and all that crap all in one place. Alas, I just couldn’t get it working. Close, but no cigar! Entering my account info had a few wrinkles, the PIN for Twitter authorization for instance. I managed to get it though, but sadly none of my tweets would read. I just saw a vertical scroll bar with blank text. Nothing nothing nothing. So sad. I really hope they improve this one, as the blind would really find it valuable.

HoudahSpot:Perfect. When I first got my Mac, I disregarded the Spotlight search feature, figuring it worked about as well as the Windows search, not very and extremely slowly in other words. What a mistake! Spotlight rules! This program takes the Spotlight and offers more specific searching. It does this through easily navigable tables in scroll areas. It works well with VoiceOver. Quite cool.

Today: Oh boy. This program shows you a simplified view of your iCal events. I felt all ready to give this one my thumbs up, until I actually tried looking at an event. Firstly it has unlabeled buttons, which I tried to divine and label. In the course of this I chanced to pick a day with a scheduled event. Instead of seeing something meaningful, I saw an internal representation of the event, a serialized data structure in programming terms. This makes it unusable. Damn.

Blast:Oh dear, another one I would have enjoyed. Blast lets you quickly access recently accessed files from your menu bar. Unfortunately, I could not find where exactly this appeared. I looked in all the menu bars I could think of, but couldn’t find it. It would also bring up a window over top of an application, which would play havoc with VoiceOver. Perhaps I just didn’t look in the right place, or perhaps it just doesn’t work with VoiceOver, I don’t know. Perhaps someone can correct me on this one.

Keyboard Maestro: This program offers some of the same functionality as Textexpander and more. Whereas Textexpander does simple string substitution, Keyboard Maestro lets you define events triggered by hot keys, strings, program events, the time of day, and probably some others I forgot. With increased power comes increased complexity. I found a few minor issues with this program, for instance it requires some routing and simulated mouse clicks, but I managed to add a few macros once I learned to work around these issues. Also, unlike Textexpander, it has an engine which always runs and you only run the program when you need to edit macros. This means one less running program to deal with. It could use a little improvement on the accessibility front, but not bad. I sense some interesting potential with this program. For example, when I launch iTunes, I want it to play this clip from a recent South Park episode: “By clicking Agree, you are acknowledging that Apple may sew your mouth to the butthole of another iTunes user.” Perhaps this awesome program will let me. It can adjust iTunes in macros.

Mail Act On: This plugin for Mail.app (the default mail program for the Mac which totally decimates Outlook Express) adds some wonderful rule-related functionality. It lets you define mail filtering rules triggered by a hot key. It also lets you define outbox rules, allowing sorting of sent messages. How thoughtful. This just plug into the preferences, and works perfectly. Nice job!

So in conclusion, do I recommend the Mac Productivity Bundle for VoiceOver users? I would say yes. Four programs work, four don’t. Of the four that work, two do similar things. Average users will probably prefer Textexpander, and power users who don’t mind dealing with some little quirks will go for Keyboard Maestro. HoudahSpot offers some nice file tweaks, and Mail Act-On does the same for Mail. If this sounds good to you then go for it, but hurry, as the deal ends soon. You still end up saving money. I wanted to get this article out in time. I hope these reviews of the individual programs will come in handy even after this deal ends. Macs rule!

By the way, sighted users will not have these restrictions, and should feel free to try all the programs. They will most definitely find the bundle worth it.

Fixing a WaterDamaged iPhone with a Hairdryer

May 08, 2011

Today, we celebrated Mother’s day. As part of our dinner, Mom asked that I bring some tahini paste. I got a little on my finger, and when I went to send Mom a message I got a little on my iPhone. I powered it off and wiped it off with a slightly damp non-lint cloth (or paper towel in this case) as per the manual. I powered it on. Nothing. My heart stopped.

I quickly assumed that washing it had tripped the water damage sensor. A number of people have had issues with this, and sometimes unpredictably so. For example, my sister dropped her iPhone into the Atlantic Ocean. The iPhone had an Otterbox. She grabbed it out and it worked, somehow. A few days later, she had it out on her kitchen counter and splashed a little water on it, and the thing failed. I did not consider failure an option.

I knew I should keep it powered off to limit damage, but since it already had switched on I figured what the hell, I may as well gather some quick data. I knew it had switched on because I could hold an AM radio nearby and hear the interference. I then called my iPhone from my landline. To my shock, it rang, and I could hear the “Slide to unlock” message through the earpiece. Once the call ended however it went back to acting silent and broken.

I thought I had tempted fate long enough, so powered it down with the sleep/home combination, and called Apple. They told me that I could bring it in, but that the warrantee didn’t cover water damage, and I could spend $200 on a replacement, in other words a refurbished iPhone. This did not sit well with me, but I made an appointment for the next day just in case. The time had come for dinner, so I joined some of my family at Mom’s to eat the fateful falafel which killed my iPhone. We needed the tahini for the sauce.

I wanted to have fun with my family, especially since I sent Mom some roses, but I had already begun going into withdrawal. I couldn’t think about anything else but fixing my iPhone, so decided to bring my trusty MacBook Air along. Once there, I started searching around for tips. I found this article which tells how a poor girl who put her boyfriend’s iPhone through the wash avoided getting murdered. Basically, it recommends using a hairdryer on low, and if that doesn’t work submerging the iPhone in a bag of rice. I borrowed a hairdryer from Mom after dinner and started drying my poor iPhone. I used the cold setting so as not to further damage any components. After ten or so minutes I stopped drying and turned it on. I still heard nothing, except for the little bips made when using the volume buttons. This seemed hopeful, so I did a little more drying and thinking.

I wondered what would happen if I plugged in a pair of headphones, bypassing the speaker. Sure enough, I could hear VoiceOver, but without system sounds. I began to put the pieces together. The water damage sensor on the bottom had triggered, and the iPhone assumed that it should stop outputting through the speaker. Checking sound settings confirmed this, with the Ringer/Alerts volume now set to 0%. Nervously, I increased it, and gradually heard sound through the speaker. The system sounds also returned.

I thought I got it, but suddenly the sound stopped and my heart started racing. I turned the iPhone off again and did more drying. Time had past, and I wondered if I should continue this experiment at home. I told Mom that it just occurred to me that I don’t even own a hairdryer. She said that most guys don’t, and gave me a cheap one. I went home and did more drying and praying to Goddess. After a half hour or so I decided to try again. I turned it on with headphones, and raised the speaker volume. Success! I unplugged the headphones to see if all sounds would come through the speaker. Success! I kept it on and used it, sending several text messages, updating some apps, and some other routine things. It seemed to work.

But wait. I now had battery drain. I guess at some point things got reset, so I turned on screen curtain again and reduced the brightness. I figured that would fix it, but it didn’t. I watched over the next day with mounting concern and a mounting heart rate. Then, I read a tip to try a simple reboot and as often happens that solved the problem. Actually it went from 90% before the reboot, to 93% afterward, a good sign. Now it sits firmly at 92% and I feel good. Knock on wood. And thanks to my MacBook Air, I can actually knock on the real wood of my back deck’s railing. I feel happy that some good old hacker knowhow and a hairdryer saved me $200. Oh iPhone, I will never try to clean you again! Just kidding.

What Hath Goddess Wrought!

April 26, 2011

I have loved radios as long as I can remember. This caused me to become interested in amateur radio, which caused me to learn morse code. Recently, I thought of trying to use morse code as an alternative to typing on my iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. What a great idea. I love technology!

I remember my first encounter with an alarm clock radio probably around age one or so. I hit a few buttons and it made a loud squealing noise. I worried I had broken the radio and that Mommy and Daddy would get mad. Even though I felt scared, I realized that pushing the buttons caused the noise to happen, and that intrigued me.

A number of years later, my family went to the Franklin Institute. At the time, they had a radio room. It doesn’t live there anymore. The nice people enthusiastically showed me their setup, and explained how I could use ham radio to talk around the world. I heard the strange sounds and beeps and voices. I felt amazed. Remember that all this happened probably in 1982-1983, long before the internet became popular. Back then, amateur radio offered a way to do something most would consider impossible: to talk around the world for free. That really began my interest in electronics.

Around age ten, I started studying to get my amateur radio license. A year later I passed my novice exam, and got my call of KA3TTT, which I have to this day. I could never part with a call like that!

At the time, the novice exam required a five word per minute morse code exam. I passed it, but didn’t really know code that well. You can’t do much at that slow speed anyway. I got an HT, like a walkie-talkie for ham radio, and began chatting on local repeaters, communication relays. Unfortunately, I became involved with an elitist clique, since I didn’t know the difference between fake cool people and real cool people at that young age. One time, they berated my code ability, so I decided to buckle down, just to show them and prove my coolness. The next year I had passed my thirteen words per minute general exam and at the same time my twenty words per minute extra code exam. I also took the tech and general theory exams, making me a general class operator. I don’t even know what that translates to today. They’ve totally redone the licensing scheme and eliminated the code tests.

Back in 1991, I had a good grasp of code and used it often to talk with people around the world. After breaking through the barrier at around eight words per minute, the brain can start hearing whole letters instead of individual dots and dashes, and things rapidly improve. Code became something instinctive, impossible to forget. Sadly, the elitist radio club of which I spoke acted in a very nasty way to a friend of mine, and that turned us both off to amateur radio. Neither of us have gone on air since. Thanks, guys. Keep wondering why your hobby dies.

After that I decided to fully get into computers. I didn’t need to deal with a bunch of fevered egos tainting my subconscious, and the PC had started really taking off, so I dove in. That brings us up to last summer, when I got an iPhone. What a beautiful machine. If only it had something easier to type with than the on-screen keyboard.

Then a few days ago it hit me. Why not use morse code as a text input? This would allow one to write messages in code, then copy and paste them. It turns out a few apps exist to do just this. I will first cover a solution which requires jailbreaking, then two apps which do not. I should also say that it does take some practice, so don’t feel frustrated if you can’t get it right away, even if you know code. You will.

For the most integrated solution, you will need to jailbreak your phone. Once you do, you can purchase iDitDahText from Cydia. When installed, you will see an SPSettings toggle. Turn it on and you will see a two-paddle keyboard come up instead of the standard text keyboard. VoiceOver users will notice a weird fusion of the default keyboard and the morse code paddles. Don’t worry. Just disable VoiceOver and tap away. Along the top of the keyboard you will find a row of special keys. It works better to toggle VoiceOver to activate one of these, except for backspace which you can find easily enough. From left to right they go backspace, shift, refresh, space, and return. This solution works wonderfully, and it works everywhere.

If you do not want to jailbreak your phone, you still have a few options. Morse2Text by HotPaw Productions does what it promises. It has straight key and iambic modes. At first I used the straight key, but have since begun to love the iambic mode. I enjoyed using an iambic keyer in my ham radio days. It works exactly as I’d expect. Just write the message in code. You have to turn VoiceOver off first, so set up your triple-click home to do that if you haven’t. While writing, you can swipe in the text field above the keying pad to the left to erase a character and to the right to insert a space. I turned off the option to suppress spaces because it would mess with my head too much, knowing the rhythm. Still, some will like it. The app outputs its letters in lowercase, so after you write your message you can always go back and clean it up. By the way, the buttons don’t have proper labels yet, so the “email edit” button lets you do things to the text, such as clearing it or copying it to your clipboard. You can also edit it with the on-screen keyboard to clean it up right in the program. Wonderful.

Since I wrote this article, Morse-It has also become accessible with VoiceOver. It offers the same features as Morse2Text and more. It has some great features to help you learn code as well. I would like to thank the developer for taking an interest in accessibility. I also want to thank the people on the viPhone mailing list.

I really enjoy coding instead of texting. As said, it takes some practice. I still find myself editing and cleaning up, and admittedly at this initial stage it can take me longer to send the message than with typing, but I see that changing with practice. I just need to get back into the rhythm. It offers a much more efficient way to input text. What hath Goddess wrought! By the way, that parodies the first message sent by Samuel Morse over telegraph: What hath God wrought! It turns out this comes from the Bible, specifically Numbers 23:23. Since Discordians consider 23 a sacred number, surely this seems like a sign from Goddess Herself to further investigate this idea.

My trusty and dusty Kenwood TS440E sits on a table in an unused room. My Kenwood triband HT sits uncharged nearby just in case. It does also work as a scanner. I suppose I should get someone to put up an antenna for the HF rig. I suppose I should also invest in a new keyer, as my iambic keyer fell apart years ago. Still, I feel scared to go back on air, due to my past bad experiences. Whatever, I won’t worry about it. I can type with morse code on my iPhone! I even have the Echolink app on my iPhone in case I really do want to take the plunge. I probably won’t. Why bother? I’ll probably only start caring about amateur radio again when they start trying to regulate the internet and – oh wait! I guess I’d better get back on air.

Now that I think about it, I had a lot of fun with ham radio. I talked all over the country and the world. I heard lots of cool sounds and languages. I went to some great radio camps. It also got me in the habit of not using profanity while on air, guarding myself and watching the words coming out of my mouth. This has paid off when doing internet broadcasts. In a way I feel sad I got out of ham radio, but given what happened I do not regret my decision or my choices since. However, I think the time has come to bring things full circle. I have loved radios as long as I can remember.

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